Behind the Scenes of Cirque du Soleil’s TOTEM

We go behind the scenes to learn how Cirque du Soleil’s TOTEM (visiting Vancouver in May) evolved from a compelling concept to world-class entertainment

BCLiving travelled to the Cirque du Soleil headquarters in Montreal to get the skinny on TOTEM

When Cirque du Soleil’s TOTEM pitches its unmistakable blue-and-yellow striped tent at Concord Pacific Place near Olympic Village this spring, Vancouverites will be treated to the world’s premier circus experience: powerful, nimble bodies performing routines that look like they belong in The Matrix while wearing costumes that are worth more than your entire wardrobe.

But what spectators won’t see are the years of planning, thousands of man-hours, and hundreds of people behind the scenes who make a show like TOTEM – where impossible things occur seemingly every other moment – possible.

BCLiving travelled to the Cirque du Soleil headquarters in Montreal to pull back the curtain on what’s in store for Vancouver.

The Conception

While it’s hitting the Lower Mainland for the first time, TOTEM premiered in Montreal in 2010 – but planning for the show began years before that. Like all new productions, the incubation process starts at the Cirque du Soleil headquarters in the borough of Saint-Michel in Montreal (one of the five most underprivileged areas in Canada). It’s a sprawling facility that has three acrobatic training rooms, costume workshops, and houses over 1,500 employees, including artists, scouts, choreographers, costume designers and more.

Cirque takes great pride in overseeing every aspect of the production and nearly everything that you’ll see in the show was made in-house, right down to the custom-tailored shoes for each individual performer, made by their resident cobbler.

The initial creative team is small, including a director (Robert Lepage), a director of creation as well as Cirque founders Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix. At this early stage, the team will bounce around ideas and themes they’d like to try in the new show.

“It’s a process of exploration and experimentation,” says Caitlan Maggs, the artistic coach for TOTEM. “The director and choreographer will talk to us about what they see or what they imagine the direction the show will take, and then we try different things. It sort of evolves as it goes along.”

After much thought, a theme was chosen: the evolution of man.

From there, the creative teams are brought in and the vision of the show begins to take shape.

The Artists

When a new show is created, a collection of performers (“artists” in Cirque speak) has to be assembled. Athletes and circus performers make up the bulk of Cirque’s talent pool, so you’ll likely see former swimmers, gymnasts and other ex-sports stars in the various productions.

Because shows are built around an acrobatic structure, being able to physically pull off the choreography is paramount. But what’s equally important is that these artists are able to tell a story using only their bodies since Cirque shows don’t contain any dialogue. Different shows have different needs that require expertise in a certain field: a rings specialist here, a talented juggler there. Once the acrobatic routines are established and the talent is cast, the training begins.

“We have a 12-week training period when they first get there,” says Maggs. “That’s when I set up an artistic immersion where they engage in three weeks of intensive artistic workshops. That’s great for people with experience and for people with no experience. We put them all together, throw them in the deep end and it’s just sink or swim.”

A regular day might include a few hours of acrobatic work, acting and expression classes, or even something as specific as African drumming. The artists are put through their paces early and often so that when opening night arrives, each movement is fluid and natural – an incredible feat considering some of the artists have never performed in this capacity in their lives.

The Production

While the artists are training their bodies, other departments are also ramping up. Nowhere is it more obvious how much painstaking detail is put into every aspect of the show than the costuming department.

Think about it: with 19 shows touring across the globe in 2014, on any given night there are more than 4,500 Cirque costumes being worn around the world. The amount of effort that goes into making these productions look good is staggering.

Take TOTEM, for instance. Sixteen months before the show began, a core team began working on costumes and props designed by Hollywood costume designer Kym Barrett (Romeo and Juliet, The Matrix) with the team growing exponentially the closer it got to the premiere. At its peak, more than 100 people were working on costumes: 56 original designs and 175 costumes total when factoring in doubles and standbys. Including costumes and props, more than 1,800 pieces were created for the show.

For chief of costumes production Pascal Gauthier, TOTEM offered a unique test.

“The biggest challenge was that each character had to have a specific story and a specific personality. Artistically, it’s better, but it’s harder.”

A sequence with cavemen features a group of Neanderthals who, to the casual observer, look pretty much the same. But each costume features unique props, be it a belt, a piece of jewellery or a headdress. This attention to detail means that a single costume could take months to finalize. For example, The “Crystal Man” costume (the human disco ball pictured above) took three months to complete the first time around. The total cost? Twenty thousand dollars. But the result is worth it – a stunning costume that is the centrepiece of a signature sequence. These are the kinds of moments that you’ll be talking about on the ride home from the show.  

Totem in Vancouver

So when you sit down in the big top with a bag of popcorn as the lights dim and the performers hit centre stage, take a moment to absorb it all – athletes at the height of their abilities, detailed costumes that probably cost more than your car and a show that was literally years in the making – and say a special thank you that something as spectacular as Cirque du Soleil is paying a visit to Vancouver.

Take a look back at all the Cirque shows that have rolled through Vancouver.

1986 – La Magie Continue

 2003 – ALEGRIA



2004 – QUIDAM


 2006 – VAREKAI

 2006 – DELIRIUM

 2007 – CORTEO

 2010 – KOOZA


2011 – QUIDAM





 2012 – AMALUNA



 2014 – TOTEM